Are U.S. States and Cities Prepared for a Disaster?

On quakes, tsunamis and radiation leaks, one expert says, "the U.S. is not nearly as well prepared as Japan was."
by | March 16, 2011 AT 1:10 PM
Official US Navy Imagery/flickr CC

Japan didn't get caught off guard.

When the 8.9-magnitude earthquake struck off its coast and triggered a giant tsunami last week, the famously high-tech nation had a plan in place that included a tsunami warning system, strict seismic standards for construction and billions of dollars worth of technologies designed to curtail damage caused by disasters.

Still, the catastrophe has left thousands missing or dead (with the death toll rising daily) and tens of thousands starving. Towns have been washed away. Millions of residents now fear radiation exposure from a leaking nuclear power plant. Indeed, the chain reaction of disasters, which Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan called the toughest and most difficult "in the 65 years after the end of World War II," has been beyond devastating. It's hard to imagine how much worse it would have been if Japan hadn't been as prepared.

In the U.S., experts say, that reality is a nightmare waiting to happen. A major earthquake -- such as the ones that have hit Indonesia, Chile, Haiti, New Zealand and now Japan -- has a one-in-three chance of striking the U.S. in the next 50 years, say Oregon State University scientists. And according to John Orcutt, a seismologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, coastal communities in Oregon and Washington could get blindsided by a tsunami.

It's the federal government's job to warn of disasters, Orcutt says, but it's the state and local governments that must be able to respond quickly to those warnings. And the emergency management policies in states across the U.S. need serious help, he said. "You can be well planned, you can plan your building structures as well as possible, but still be in a terrible position," he says. "The U.S. is not nearly as well prepared as Japan was."


Major earthquakes, according to scientists, happen in clusters as plate balance shifts. With that in mind, the tsunami that struck Japan marks the third strike in a series that puts the northeast corner of the Pacific Plate at risk. The fault line is the 810-mile San Andreas Fault, which slices down California.

"It is as though the earth becomes like a great brass bell, which when struck by an enormous hammer blow on one side sets to vibrating and ringing from all over," Simon Winchester writes in Newsweek.

But this is not just a West Coast problem: With fault lines criss-crossing the country, 39 of the 50 states -- including New York and Tennessee -- have moderate to high seismic hazard risk, David Applegate, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, told ABC News. States prone to earthquakes have requirements to make new buildings more resistant, but many are old and not up to code. Government officials can only do so much, which is why they encourage residents to purchase earthquake kits.


In the hours after the earthquake struck off the coast in Japan, federal emergency management officials quickly issued tsunami warnings and watches for California, Oregon and Washington, as well as Alaska, U.S. territories of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands.

Since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the nation's ability to detect and forecast tsunamis has improved. But the U.S. still isn't prepared for one, according to a report from the National Research Council released last year. An offshore earthquake could send waves crashing into the Western states so fast, residents wouldn't have time to react, according Orcutt, who led the review. To that effect, education and preparation are critical.

Various states have evaluated communities prone to tsunamis and boosted education and awareness efforts. But more needs to be done. Requested by Congress, the report recommended that a comprehensive tsunami program include risk assessments, public education and a well-coordinated response.

Nuclear Radiation

The crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant continues to intensify the catastrophe there, but most U.S. states wouldn't be able to handle such a nuclear plant crisis.

A new survey of state health departments found gaps in states' disaster preparedness when it comes to radiation, including little or no planning for exposure assessments in the wake of an emergency incident. The 38 state health departments that responded to the survey include 26 states with nuclear power plants -- 45 percent of them had no response for a nuclear disaster. The study, published March 14 in a journal by the American Medical Association, concludes with several steps to improve preparation, such as more training and resources at the state and federal levels.

"Without a comprehensive plan, states in which a radiation emergency occurs are likely to mount inefficient, ineffective, inappropriate or tardy responses that could result in [preventable] loss of life," the authors wrote in the study. "With nearly half of the responding states not having a response plan, a large portion of the U.S. population is at increased risk should a radiological event occur within the country's borders."

Moving Forward

In past few days, U.S. lawmakers have called for putting new nuclear plant projects on hold as state officials have been assessing their emergency management situations. "On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the most prepared and zero being the worst prepared ever, you can put Haiti at zero, you can put Japan at eight," Erwann Michel-Kerjan, managing director of the Risk Management and Decision Processes Center at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, told CNN. "And you can put the U.S. at five."

In Hawaii, which suffered tens of millions of dollars in damage from the tsunami, Gov. Neil Abercrombie toured the damaged areas yesterday. The Florida Division of Emergency Management surveyed the state's five active nuclear energy reactors, leading Gov. Rick Scott to conclude that Florida is prepared for an effective and rapid emergency response.

The tragic triple threat in Japan is a clear indication that disaster can strike anywhere, anytime, even with solid emergency plans in place. But as state and local governments shore up emergency management policies and boost education efforts, officials emphasize that they can't do it alone: Safety starts on an individual level.

More information on disaster and emergency resources for state and local employees is located at